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Keeping the wheels on the bus moving for a successful post-pandemic journey

May 19, 2023

How can we ensure local authorities can unlock funding and design bus services that keep communities connected now and in the future?

By Alastair Mackie, Adrian Neve, and David Bowers

Buses provide essential links between communities, helping people to access vital services, facilities, and their jobs. Not everyone can drive—only 77 percent of households have cars—and not everyone can afford to rely on ride shares, like Uber. But buses are here for everyone—a mode of transport providing an affordable alternative to taxis and trains and a more sustainable alternative to car travel.

But maintaining reliable bus services is costly. While it’s important to retain an affordable fare, buses need to charge enough so the service can be maintained and subsidised for those who are financially challenged. This becomes a significant problem when usage drops. 

Buses are an essential part of our communities.

A negative spiral—going round and round

Currently, usage significantly lower when compared to pre-pandemic times. There are several reasons why usage hasn’t bounced back, including a change in working and commuting patterns. Whatever the reason, services cannot be cancelled because they have fewer passengers, and this significant reduction in fares risks creating a negative spiral—poor usage results in less revenue, leading to reduced service and price increases. All of this ultimately circles back to a further reduction in usage.

The drop in people choosing the bus due to the pandemic has meant the government has had to step in and subsidise services up and down the country. This support will soon be withdrawn.

Councils and local transport operators have been able to apply for additional funding through the Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP). So far, 31 local authorities have received financial aid to improve bus services in their regions.

But this funding comes with strings. It must be spent by 2025, it can’t be used to support existing services, and it should also cover measures to change public perception of buses to increase usage. This means councils must come up with ways to implement the funding by rolling out new services, while dealing with public opposition that may result from changes—especially reductions—to existing services. They must do this quickly so that the funding is used by 2025, and they must do it right, as there are currently no plans for future funding.

Funding is not the only challenge

An additional complication is that many councils have lost the in-house experience they used to call on to implement design and manage bus services. Every authority had employees with knowledge of public transport services, many with experience and skills learned from bus companies themselves. But these resources have been reduced in recent years, and authorities often need to look for outside support to supplement inhouse capabilities. 

Stantec can help local authorities in navigating funding challenges.

While this can be an additional challenge, it can also present an opportunity. It creates a chance to form complementary partnership with consultancies and agencies that have a broad range of skills and knowledge of how other councils are successfully delivering bus services.

This collective insight can be used in many ways. Examples include designing innovative new services, creating efficiencies in the management of operations and assets, providing additional support for stakeholder management and consultation, and unlocking new sources of funding. 

There are advances in GIS and data analytics that councils can call on to help them identify where people live and where service sweet spots can be found. There are developments in measuring social value that can ensure councils are implementing services that truly improve lives. And there are alternative funding streams, aside from those specifically designated for bus services, that can be identified by experienced economics teams who can also develop business cases and secure awards. All can contribute to maximising revenue, minimising operating costs and helping communities thrive. 

Changing perceptions

There is no doubt that better buses can help towns, cities and villages provide a better quality of life for their residents. But buses present an opportunity to support a better environment too. Perhaps an important part in getting people to see buses as the transport mode of choice is to highlight their role in reducing carbon.  

When someone buys an electric vehicle (EV), they often think they’re doing their bit for the environment. While it is a step in the right direction, regularly catching a bus is an even bigger step. Buses encourage people away from car use and reduce the amount of traffic on the road. If we then factor in the introduction of EV fleets, buses present an even more sustainable transport choice.

Fleets are becoming more sustainable, almost on a month-by-month basis, as vehicles are replaced with new cleaner models. Through the recent Department for Transport (DfT) national competition to fund a zero-emission service, 17 authorities secured funding to evolve their fleets. Increasingly, major operators are investing in electric and hydrogen fleets, and manufacturers are beginning to talk about no longer building diesel buses.

What does the future look like?

It might be not as bad as we think. While statistics show a gradual decline in bus use over the decades, some towns had turned this around. Places like Reading and Brighton, where operators and councils worked collaboratively, showed the way with bus usage increasing before the pandemic. Other locations are moving towards a regulated framework, like London’s closely managed services, where decisions about services, fares and fleets are made by the local transport authority. Greater Manchester is next on the list to adopt this approach while several other cities are investigating whether the model would work for them. 

Zero-emission buses, franchising in cities, preventing the social impacts of reduced timetables, and getting people to public services rather than paying for public services to go to individuals are all achievable targets. There is light on the horizon for bus services; councils just need a clear path in the right direction and be ready to look for outside collaborations on the journey. 

Buses can help towns, cities and villages provide a better quality of life for their residents.

Buses are part of our community and with the right funding, approach and management there will always be a bus there for us to catch.

Stantec offers a range of transport-related services, helping secure funding and investment for transport interventions. We understand the intrinsic link between people, movement, development, economics, and place to form frameworks and solutions at all scales.

For local authorities and operators looking for more information on how to navigate funding challenges, learn more about our bus and coach services

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